08/05/2004 12:00AM

West Virginia Derby may offer an overlay


Competition does not run deep in Saturday's West Virginia Derby. Pollard's Vision and Sir Shackleton are the lone graded-stakes winners in the nine-horse field, and the only entrants who have run a Beyer Speed Figure that matches or exceeds the 104 par for the race over the past six years. They also lead the race in average earnings per start, and have trainers who are among the most successful in the business.

They are the most probable winners. Analyzing their relative chances - based on a fair betting line totaling 100 percentage points - I believe Pollard's Vision is deserving of starting at 8-5. Sir Shackleton is a legitimate 3-1 shot.

Because of the takeout and the fact that their virtues are so clear in the past performances, I'm pessimistic such a price will be available on either horse. Pollard's Vision, who is cross-entered in Sunday's Haskell Invitational but expected to run in the West Virginia Derby, is the 9-5 morning-line favorite on the track line, and figures to drop lower. Sir Shackleton is 2-1 on the track line.

A potential price play is Britt's Jules. A relative no-name on the national scene, he may be overlooked in the West Virginia Derby. Provided the favorites are underlaid, as expected, he could become playable at 10-1 odds or more.

In part what I like about him is his consistency. He has been on the board in his last nine races, winning five of those. Granted, all those victories came in races with purses of $50,000 or less, but at least he ran quickly in many of those starts.

Twice as a juvenile he earned Beyer Speed Figures of 96, and on July 18 in his last race, he proved his class and speed by running second to Pollard's Vision in the Grade 3 Leonard Richards at Delaware Park.

Pollard's Vision beat him fairly that day, running him down and winning by two lengths in the slop. If Pollard's Vision produces the same kind of performance, he will likely beat him again.

But Pollard's Vision won't be 10-1. Britt's Jules might be.

What tends to happen in prestigious, lucrative races - particularly at small tracks like Mountaineer - is that the public tends to focus on big-name connections, sometimes overlooking the obvious: the merits of the horse.

When they look at the past performances of Pollard's Vision, they will see a quality colt trained by Todd Pletcher, who leads the nation in earnings. Then when they glance at Sir Shackleton, they will notice he is trained by a two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer in Nick Zito.

In looking at Britt's Jules's past performances, few will recognize the name of trainer Eric Guillot, let alone know much about him.

Think back a few years and his name might ring a bell, or at least a filly he trained might. Show Me the Stage, a Slew the Surgeon filly trained by Guillot, won 13 stakes, including four graded races, across the country.

She won the Azalea Breeders' Cup at Calder, the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap at Oaklawn, the Monrovia and Las Flores handicaps in California, and loads of stakes in Louisiana.

After concluding racing, she was sold at Keeneland's January sale in 2001 for $610,000 - a hefty price for a modestly bred mare.

I doubt Britt's Jules will prove to be of that class. Few are. But he has already shown that he is fast. He led Pollard's Vision to the eighth pole in the Leonard Richards, and the Beyer Figure of 102 that he earned indicates how quick he is. In fact, he and the favorites are the only horses who have run triple-digit Beyers. That is an important stat given that over the past six years, no horse has won the West Virginia Derby with a Beyer of less than 99.

Britt's Jules has faults. He has no experience beyond 1 1/16 miles or victories beyond a mile and 70 yards. He also faces considerable pace pressure from longshot Avid Skier. Even Pollard's Vision and Sir Shackleton have been known to race on or very close to the pace.

Britt's Jules is the third most likely winner of the West Virginia Derby, behind Pollard's Vision and Sir Shackleton. He needs to be 10-1 odds to make him a worthwhile alternative to the favorites.